The attention merchants


The Braveheart is a powerful movie and still resonates with me. I can still remember and visualize the face of the young Mel Gibson riding on top of his stallion playing the character of William Wallace; a fictional Scottish warrior and his famous shout “Freedom!” Moreover, as expected, the popularity of the movie became a popular theme for business conferences and events after that.

The thing that strikes me, though is that in the years dating back to the 1200s where the story of the film evolved; business competition involved land-grabbing as aptly portrayed by the movie. In ancient times land was considered as the most important asset in the world. Wars were waged and staged, and politics was a struggle to control this asset. So when too much land is in the hands of a privileged few, then society causes split into aristocrats and commoners.

Then the industrial age came. This is also referred to as the “modern era.” Wealth and power were measured by the size and quantity of machines and factories and, in fact, was perceived as more important than land. Politics focused on controlling vital means of production. Also, when too many factories with their machines were concentrated on the hands of a few, society once more split into capitalists and proletariats.

Now comes the 21st century. Yuval Noah Harari says, “Data will eclipse both land and machines as the most important asset. So politics will struggle in the control of data.” Isn’t this happening already? However, Harari continues saying that if data becomes limited in a few hands, then humans will split into different species.

We’ve heard the phrase: “Data is the new oil.” So the race for data is already on, headed by the leading technology companies in the world. We often think of companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and even Apple, but we should also be aware of companies like Baidu and Tencent. These are all in the data gathering business. Harari refers to these companies as “attention merchants.” Technology companies collect an immense amount of our personal data and the more we use their services the more they can use the collected data to predict our behavior and preferences.

There is a competition for our attention. It would not be presumptuous of me to say that you and I are no longer their customers, rather, we have become their products. Authority today, in many cases, has been transferred from humans to algorithms. A famous saying among people in the marketing circle is that no sane or decent marketing executive today would even dare make marketing decisions unless backed up by algorithms processing big data.

Gone are the days when good old-fashioned marketing people with their ad agency staff would conduct face-to-face meetings with customers to figure out what they need and what they want. They then made decisions based on their report. One marketing guru lamented the fact that traditional marketing practices have been sacrificed at the altar of artificial intelligence, with algorithms doing the thinking for them. Perhaps this is the reason why many of the modern-day practitioners keep on implementing marketing strategies designed to annoy people?

I have never come across anyone who would look me in the eye and say, “I so enjoy pop up ads.” Duh! Yet a fortune is spent on doing the same day in and day out. Another traditional old-school marketing professional complained and shared his story that many of these young modern-day marketing warriors that depend on technology to do the work for them, when asked to converse with their customers froze up and refused to do so, because of the fear of communicating with a client is a skill that is foreign to them. It’s a strange world we are living in today.

Perhaps the churning of more technology, empowered to a higher degree when 5G enters the picture, would speed up business processes, but dumb down human interaction and meaningful conversation. I am beginning to see this happening to a lot of young people today. They are so adept with technology, but do not have communication skills.

Which begs us to consider this question: “Will algorithms know us more than we know ourselves?”

Can we still say all business is in the “people business” when we let machines do the work and thinking for us?

Michael Schaffer said it best when he said, “Ask what the customers love” and it takes humans (not machines) to be able to understand this and provide solutions for what the customers need. Use technology, but never let it replace humanity.

(Attend Power Up! World of CX as international speaker Krish Dhanam together with industry experts and practitioners AJ Rocero, Ralph Layosa, Josh Supan and Francis Kong share winning ideas on delivering excellent customer service in the digital economy. Happening on Oct. 2 from 9 to 5 p.m. at Samsung Hall SM Aura BGC. For registration or inquiries contact Kim at 0977-700-0093; CJ at 0917-629-9401 or register online at www.powerup.ph)






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